Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: nutrition

In “Following my own advice” I described how I try to get something important done every day before checking emails. In that post I rather blithely referred to concentrating on ‘creating assets’, and loosely defined assets as “anything that adds value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.”
I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on the post, mostly through my mailing list (feel free to join below), and one point that came up more than once is that I didn't define ‘assets’ clearly enough, so I thought I’d go through in detail what I think I should be spending my time on.
You spotted how I carefully did not say “you should be spending your time on”, right? As ever, take my advice with a sceptical mind, and discard anything that doesn’t work for you. One big caveat: being self-employed means I have a dick of a boss who never gives me time off or a raise, but I can choose literally anything to work on. That's both a blessing and a curse.
Here is the Master Asset List, my top three assets, in order of priority.

1) Mental Health
Every experience you will ever have is mediated and experienced by your consciousness. There is no experience so blissful that you can’t be miserable during it, and no experience so awful that bliss is impossible. Perhaps the best single resource on this is Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, closely followed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. The key elements to my mental health are:
1. My relationships (primarily wife and children, other family and close friends, everyone else).
2. Meaningful work. Like writing this blog post. Or the next book. What makes it meaningful for me is its ability to transform other people’s lives for the better.
3. Meditation. I meditate every day, and have been doing so (with more or less regularity) for many years. The last year or so has been especially difficult (see here for an idea why), and one of my coping strategies has been to get a lot stricter about doing my meditation every day. It helps. I’ve written a short guide to getting started if you want to try it out.
4. Fun. Much underrated, but it is critically important to kick back and have fun often. Never underestimate the power of silly.

All the rest of these assets listed below are only relevant or useful because they affect my state of mind. It’s easier to be mentally healthy when you’re physically healthy and not worried about money.

2. Physical Health
“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Count Rugen was a villain, but he spoke truth here. Physical health rests on two foundations: what you eat and how you move.

Diet: I’ve written up my approach to diet in lots of places, including here, here, and here; and it can be summed up as:

  • learn to cook
  • avoid sugar
  • eat lots of vegetables
  • pay attention to high quality fats, and
  • fast every now and then.

That's a very big topic dismissed in a few lines, so do check out those links if you're interested.

Exercise: How you move… hmmm, I wonder what kind of exercise a professional swordsman would recommend… ok, start with looking after your joints (here’s a free course on knee maintenance), and carry on by finding any physical activity that you enjoy, and do it regularly. That could be walking the dog, ballet, rock-climbing, trapeze, anything. Some activities are better adapted for long-term health than others, but if health is your priority you can probably avoid most of the damage that might be done during the less conservative activities. I’m a big fan of breathing exercises, as you probably know; they are the foundation of my movement practice, and they are specifically designed and intended for promoting health.
An imperfect plan that you actually follow is way better than a perfect plan that you abandon, so it’s much more important to find something fun that keeps you moving, than it is to find the ‘perfect’ health-giving exercise. Moving your body should not be a chore.

Sleep: The best single source on sleep matters (and sleep does matter!) is Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. In short, the more and better you sleep, the longer you live. Good sleep is really the ultimate time management strategy because it a) buys you more time because you live longer and b) makes your waking hours vastly more productive.  There are so many factors affecting sleep that it would take a whole book to go into them (like Dr. Walker’s!), but I’ll summarise the main things that have helped me:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Yes, 12 hours. I only drink coffee at breakfast. Caffeine kills deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, or at least get it all out of your system before bed. Alcohol kills REM sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. A full stomach affects sleep quality.
  • Nap, but not too long or too late. eg 30-60 minutes at 2pm.
  • All screens off at least an hour before bed, and screens after 8pm are set to ‘Night Mode’, cutting down on blue light.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As with everything, experiment to see what works for you. I track sleep with the OURA ring, but you can use other tools, or just notice how you feel in the morning. Top tip: if you need an alarm to wake up, you haven’t slept enough.

 

3. Money
Once your mental and physical health are being attended to, then the next big thing is money. Money worries are truly toxic to your mental health, and can poison every aspect of your life. Think of those bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression, all because some numbers on a bit of paper were not the way they wanted them. Weird, huh? But real. Just choosing not to worry is an option, of course, but it's much easier for most people to actually do something to reduce expenditure and increase income. Incidentally, my favourite money blog is Mr Money Moustache. He's refreshingly unapologetic.
I should point out that I am by no means rich- I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months since I became an adult in which I had enough cash in the bank to cover the next month’s bills in advance. This is because I have always, always, put time-rich ahead of money-rich, on the grounds that you can always make more money but when time is spent, it’s gone for good. My first salary as a cabinet maker was £6000 per year. I learned fast enough to double that in two years. Woohoo! And swordsmen these days don’t make much cash either.
In Finland, people’s tax returns are actually in the public domain- you can literally walk into the tax office and for a small fee get a copy of anybody’s. Let me save you the bother: here’s mine from last year in case you’re interested.
But, and here’s the big BUT. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been effectively living off passive income. My books and other assets generate about enough money to live on, month by month. People buy my books and courses while I’m asleep. And, given that I’ve never made a lot of money, I’ve never become addicted to a large and regular income, so it took relatively little time or effort to get to the point where my assets were generating enough income to cover all normal expenses. This means that I am now much freer to choose the things I spend my time on. Like taking all day Wednesday off this week because it's my daughter's birthday and she has stuff planned from dawn 'till dusk.

In short, my work priorities are:

  1. do I think it's important, in terms of serving the art?
  2. will it be good for my reputation?
  3. will it force me to acquire new skills?
  4. will it produce passive income?
  5. is it scalable?

Let's take those one at a time:

1. Serving the art: In my experience, every single time I've tried to be ‘businesslike' and put what should be a sensible business move in place it's gone horribly wrong. But when contemplating a course of action if I can look into my heart and say ‘yes, this will serve the art', then it's always turned out ok (even if it hasn't made any money).

2. Reputation: Not every asset generates income: some generate opportunity. When The Swordsman's Companion was published in 2004, it made me no money at all (there’s a story there, but after suing the publisher, part of the settlement included a mutual non-defamation agreement. Make of that what you will). But that book put me on the map as an instructor. I suddenly started getting invited to events to teach, which massively broadened my horizons. Students from all over the world started to get in touch, having heard of me because they found my book in a bookshop somewhere. My Singapore branch came into being because Chris Blakey and Greg Galistan stumbled upon my book in the Borders Bookshop there. And when the rights reverted to me in 2012, I self-published it, and now it pays the mortgage.

3. Acquire skills: Time spent working on skills is never wasted, especially skills that you learn for their own sake rather than for a specific objective. Because whatever skill you are learning, you are simultaneously learning how to learn, and, more importantly, if you’re learning for its own sake you are putting process over outcome. Let’s say I learned to speak German because I wanted a job in Germany. If I learned German but didn’t get the job, the time would have been wasted, and I wouldn’t take full advantage of being able to talk to Germans in their own language, to read German books and watch German films. But if I learned German for its own sake, and it happened to lead to a job, well that’s a bonus.
A skill become an asset when they add value to your life. I really cannot think of a single skill I’ve ever regretted learning. And I can think of several that I learned ‘just because’, that then turned out to be professionally useful. Martial arts being the obvious example- I didn’t even think of turning professional until 2000, and I had about 15 years of training under my belt by then!

4. Passive income: There is nothing wrong with being paid for your time. And nothing wrong with being productive. But even in the classic model of employment, you’re supposed to retire at some point and live off your pension. Your pension is created by investments that pay you a passive income. This is how people in professions like dentistry can end up retiring in comfort- they make a good income per hour, being paid by the hour, but use a big chunk of that active income to buy assets (such as stocks and funds) that produce a passive income.
A passive income is defined as income that requires no work on your part whatsoever. If you are packing and shipping your own books, that’s not passive income. If you have to be in a specific place, or awake at a specific time to get paid, that’s not passive income. When I am faced with a choice between producing something I can get paid once for (a woodworking commission, a writing commission, private lessons, seminars etc), or producing something that will generate a passive income stream, even a small one, then I will tend to choose the latter.
Perhaps the most outrageous examples of this choice comes from the original Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher sold her image rights outright for a sizeable chunk of money. Over a thousand dollars, I think, way back in the 70s when that was worth something. Alec Guinness got paid royalties. Guess which one did better? There was a lot of luck involved, but if you don’t have passive-income producing assets that might go all Harry Potter on you, then it cannot ever happen.
Let’s put some numbers on this. The Swordsman's Companion makes about 10,000 dollars a year in income for me (it’s my best-selling book by a margin!). To generate similar returns, I would need at least 200k in traditional assets. Here’s an article on how that would work. If anyone wanted to buy that book off me outright, I’d therefore ask for at least 200k. Nobody in their right mind would offer me that much, so the book stays with me. Folk might stop buying it tomorrow. But folk might still be buying it in 50 years time. There is no way to know, and that is true of any asset. Stock markets crash like Italian drivers. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe investment- even cash loses value over time. My mother in law saved for a pension for 30 years- and just before she was due to retire, the fund (Eagle Star) crashed and she lost the lot. Nothing is safe, so the only sane course is diversification, which is why you can buy my books on any platform, in any format- so long as people still want to read about how to train with swords, they will be able to buy my books on the subject.

5. Scalable: A scalable asset is one which you create once, and can sell an infinite number of times. I have spent most of my working life producing non-scalable assets. Back when I was a cabinet maker, I would work for hours and hours on a piece of furniture, which was then sold. As a martial arts teacher, I would teach a class, which existed only in that moment. I got paid for that moment, but that was it. There is nothing wrong with this model if you have the energy to work full time forever, and never get sick. A non-scalable asset might produce passive income, but you can still only sell it once. A house that you rent out is a good example. It can be an excellent passive income stream, but you can only rent the house out to one tenant or group of tenants at a time.
A book is scalable- you write it once, and when it’s published people can buy as many copies of it as they want. You don’t have to write each reader a new book. An online course is scalable too; create it once, sell it as many times as you like.

Ideally, my most productive time is spent serving the art, building my reputation, learning skills, and producing scalable assets that produce passive income.

So, that's how prioritise my time; how do you prioritise yours?

This will be my last post this year, so let me close by wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, mentally, physically and financially healthy New Year!

You can't eat too many vegetables...
You can't eat too many vegetables…

I am not a doctor. And even if I was, I’m not your doctor. If you have any kind of medical issue, don’t get your info from the internet, still less from swordsmanship instructors. Do some research, then go talk to your doctor. Clear?

I dropped 10kg from round my waist, almost by accident. Here’s what happened. I’ll go back to the very beginning, so you can see the process.

In the beginning:
In the late nineties, the metabolism I inherited from my father started to kick in, and without my really noticing it, I had to let my belt out, notch by notch. I got this belt from my sister when I was 21, so I’ve had it round my waist for about half my life. It tells a sorry tale…

 

See the grooves?
See the grooves?

Back when I was 21, I wore this belt on its fourth or fifth notch from the end. By the middle of 2000, it was on the third. Then, after coming down from the mountain and deciding to open my school, I started training at dawn every day, on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (I do love my traditional martial arts training tropes). In about three weeks, I lost 7kg (15 lb), from round my waist. 3 weeks later, the weight was back, but round my shoulders. I had to get a new jacket because my old one was suddenly too tight. I was 26, with all the metabolic advantages that gives.

When I got to Finland in 2001, what with the stress of starting the school, and lots and lots of training, I ate what I wanted and stayed skinny. On a normal day, I was training for two or three hours and teaching for two or three. I had to eat every three hours or so, or Hungry Guy would appear and make everyone’s life miserable. The closest I have come to murder was probably when I hadn’t eaten for four hours, went to a Thai restaurant for an emergency feed, and the waiter seemed to dilly dally about getting the food on the table.

I (mis)diagnosed the problem as too-low body weight. I was about 73kg at that point. I ate like crazy to try to put the weight on, but was too stressed and training too much to gain an ounce. Then I met Michaela in 2005, and chilled the fuck out. One of the ways I knew she was the One was that within a few months of meeting her, I’d put on the 4kg (9lb) I was looking for. That did help with Hungry Guy, but only up to a point. I still needed to eat every four hours or so. At this point, my weight was up to 77kg, so I instituted a rule: if my weight got up to 80kg, I’d cut out sugar and alcohol until it was back below 78. Then I could eat what I want. This very often (maybe 5 times a week) included an entire 200g bar of chocolate after dinner, ‘shared’ with Michaela (she’d get maybe one row, so, an eighth of it).

What with one thing and another, by April 2014 I was seriously considering adjusting the rule to anything below 80kg is fine, over 82 cut out sugar and alcohol. (Self-indulgent bullshit is a specialty of mine.) I was at 83kg, and my belt was on the penultimate notch. As you can see, it still has the deepest groove; it had been there for a long time. I had already read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, so I should have known better. But sugar, oh, sugar; sweet heaven.

The Slow Carb diet

Then, on a flight to Melbourne, I read Tim Ferriss’s The Four Hour Body. It was the final straw. There was just no way I could justify the level of sugar I was eating, especially given my family history of high blood pressure, my father’s serious weight problem, and everything I had ever read on the topic of metabolism, nutrition (not counting the junk science rubbish that occasionally made it onto my reading list; I highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre to help you distinguish the good from the bad), health and longevity.

When I got to Australia, I decided to try the Slow Carb diet. Let me summarise it for you.
1) No fast carbs; no sugar, no starch. No potatoes, no rice, no bread, no biscuits, no pasta, no white food except cauliflower, in other words.
2) Eat the same few meals; perhaps half a dozen different dishes.
3) Don’t drink calories. Avoid alcohol, sweet drinks (especially sodas, obviously, but less obviously also fruit juice).
4) Cheat one day a week. On that day, eat and drink whatever you like, as much as you like. But just one day a week.
You can see the blog post that started it all here.

If you think about it, rule 3 is really just the same as rule 1, and rule 2 is a bit boring, and rule 4 should be optional. What I ended up doing is basically just rule 1, and I was reasonably strict about it.

On the day I arrived in Australia, jetlagged to hell, and about to teach a 4 day intensive seminar, my metabolism was still demanding to eat every 3-4 hours. So obviously, I never went anywhere without back-up chocolate. I arrived on Friday morning and started Slow-carb right away, and taught Saturday-Tuesday, five or six hours a day. Up until this point there was no way I could get through a 6 hour seminar without a sugar hit in the afternoon. I’d crash about 3pm, sugar-up to get me through to the end, then need dinner, large and fast.

On the Monday, after teaching for three days straight, I was digging through my bag for something, and found my chocolate stash. In three days of teaching, in the most energy-demanding situation (jet-lag, long days), I had forgotten to eat in the afternoons. I was astonished.

This was because I was not spiking my blood sugar at any point, and so was not crashing. Cutting out starch and sugar proved to be a complete game-changer, because it evened out my energy demands. Please note though that I was not cutting out carbs, only fast carbs. I was still eating about eight tons of vegetables every day, and a lot of meat (the food in Australia is superb!).

Slow Carb, Low Carb, and Ketogenic: 
Let's take a moment to define a few things:
1) Slow Carb v. Low Carb. They are very different. A classic low-carb diet gives you most of your calories from fat and protein. A slow carb diet gives you a lot of carbohydrates, but all with a low glycaeimic index, so you avoid the blood-sugar spike. I think any diet that tells you to steer clear of vegetables is fundamentally dangerous.
2) Ketogenic versus Low Carb. A ketogenic diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that keeps your body running on fat. It is very high fat, and obviously restricts carbs, but it also restricts protein. This is because protein is easily broken down into glucose, and so your body will switch back to a glucose based energy delivery system, rather than stay in a fat based energy delivery system (a state called ketosis). Ketogenic diets are mostly used medicinally to treat children that have drug-resistant seizures. I personally would not recommend long-term ketosis, because it is very hard to do in the modern world, and there is no evidence that any human population has ever subsisted long-term on a ketogenic diet (the Inuit may be an exception, but probably not). Ketogenic diets should be further subdivided into calorie-restricted (less than 1000 per day) and unrestricted. The best-known proponents of the unrestricted ketosis diet are Dom D’Agostino and Peter Attia (both medical doctors). Their podcasts and websites are well worth a listen/look.

Bye-bye Hungry Guy
What I was doing in Australia was a not-terribly-strict Slow Carb diet; after class, at dinner, I quite often wolfed down a bunch of fast carbs in the form of beer, and chips with my steak, that sort of thing. But breakfast and lunch were fast-carb-free. The difference in my energy levels was enough to sell me on the idea. But when I got home less than three weeks later and trod on the scales, I got a shock. I was down from 83 to 74kg, and had not once, even once, gone hungry. I ate like a pig, just not starch or sugar. I was so pleased with the results I decided to keep it up. I now hover around the 72-73kg mark.

Most incredibly, Hungry Guy has disappeared. To test this, in September 2014 I decided to see what would happen if I missed a meal or two. I had lunch on Monday at about 1pm, taught class on Monday night, ate nothing when I got home, had one cup of coffee instead of breakfast on Tuesday, missed lunch, and ate dinner with the kids at 6pm. So, about 29 hours of not eating anything. And I was completely fine. Not even that hungry. Certainly no dizziness, or feeling of weakness. Nothing associated with low blood sugar problems. It's also why I wrote “avoid sugar” as one of my top 3 stay-sane-and-healthy tips for modern living.

Fasting
This has lead me to do some further research on fasting; it comes in all shapes and sizes. The simplest is just don’t eat for a while. I would not try that without preparation, if I were you. The health benefits of at least occasional ketosis are well-documented; I think of it as a metabolic spring-clean. But you can fast for a couple of days and not get into ketosis because your body breaks down your muscles to produce glucose. So if you don’t want to a) feel too hungry and b) lose muscle mass, it’s a very good idea to get into ketosis before you fast. Here’s how.

1) Be very strict about fast carbs for a week or two. This gets you off any sugar-high rollercoaster. When you fast your blood sugar will probably fall a bit, so make sure that it’s not a dramatic drop.
2) Follow a ketogenic diet for a couple of days. Use pee-sticks to make sure it’s working. Not everyone can handle a ketogenic diet, so if it makes you feel ill, stop. Try step 3 instead.
3) You can dose yourself with exogenous ketones to speed up the process of switching over. Exogenous ketones or ketogenic foods that I have used successfully (as measured by pee-sticks) include medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and raspberry ketones. When your pee-sticks tell you you are in a moderate state of ketosis, such as about 2-3 mmol/L, then stop eating. See how 24 hours feels. If you get really hungry, or dizzy, or your blood pressure drops, or anything like that, then BREAK YOUR FAST. With breakfast, obviously. But unless there are some odd medical issues, 24 hours should be no big deal. Just remember to drink plenty of water. Tea and coffee are also ok.

Just to test this, last Thursday I skipped breakfast, and ate lunch at about 2pm. At 11am I had a ketone level at or close to 0. Lunch was a small salad, with a tin of smoked mackerel in oil, and two teaspoons of MCT oil, and a splash of olive oil. I also took 2 125mg capsules of rasperry ketones (Hi-tech Pharmaceuticals brand) and a 6.33g dose of BCAA's (USPlabs “ModernBCAA+” brand). At 4pm my peesticks told me that I was in ketosis at a level of 4mmol/L. Easy enough!

I am currently about 73kg, stronger than I was in April 2014, and my belt is wearing a new groove at notch 5. If I fasten it at the deeply-worn second notch, there is enough room under my belt now for two bottles of wine.

current notchwine carrying

Further thoughts on fasting:

1) I got all of my weight-loss done without fasting. It’s not necessary for that purpose, but there is a ton of evidence to suggest that it is good for you to fast occasionally. Here are a couple of articles on it: one very pro: Mercola  and one from the UK National Health Service, specifically about 5:2 intermittent fasting, which I don't do, which is more measured: NHS.)Whether the benefits come from being in ketosis (which can be achieved without fasting), or from the short-term calorie restriction, or some other mechanism, is not clear yet. But it is abundantly clear that throughout human history, we have had to be able to function for short periods without food, and indeed many traditional cultures (including Christianity’s Lent and Islam’s Ramadan) incorporate longer fasts into their yearly calendar.

2) There is nothing inherently virtuous in not eating. It’s just a training tool, like push-ups and meditation. Do it because it generates specific benefits.

3) Don’t overdo it. Fasting gets much easier with practice. These days, I routinely fast for 24 hours with no preparation, about once a week. It does wonders for re-setting my metabolism. After Christmas I was so full I didn’t eat for 48 hours. No biggy. I’m planning a 5 day fast for later in the year; it takes planning because eating meals with the children is a big part of family life. If you don’t have kids, then it’s probably much easier.

5) For me, the point of fasting is to reap the metabolic benefits and to test that my diet allows me to be free of the need to eat for 24 hours or so. I never feel deprived when fasting, so I don’t feel any need to ‘make up for it’ with a stupid blow-out. I do stupid blow-outs every now and then just because I like them, and because my habits seem to be good, I can get away with the occasional splurge.

6) I think that as a martial artist I just jolly well ought to be able to work fine without food for a short time. Not eat for a day or two, and still fight. In feels simply unmartial to me to be slavishly dependent on a totally reliable food source for my effectiveness. An army marches on its stomach, yes. But I don't think there has ever been an army in combat that didn't go hungry at least occasionally.

Some further thoughts:
If you are trying to control your weight, try changing one thing a time. The first big thing I would is add vegetables. A decent serving of green vegetables at every meal will do wonders all by itself to make up for any dietary deficiencies, and fill you up a bit, which will reduce the amount of other stuff you eat. Also, the fibre in the vegetables will slow down sugar absorption, at least up to a point.

Then, the next thing to try is to cut out fast carbs. Cheat once a week if you must, but make sure you are always eating lots and lots of vegetables, and some decent high-quality fat. So fry your vegetables in organic butter 🙂 If this is too hard, then do it for just one meal a day, ideally breakfast.

The scales are a very blunt instrument. You might drop a bunch of weight, and actually be getting fatter, if you are losing muscle mass instead of the lard. I would take waist measurement over weight as an indicator of progress (see that belt?). I would also take all measurements at the same time of day, on the same day, once a week and not more often. This is much more reliable and less depressing than watching your weight fluctuate from morning to night (as it invariably does).

Systems are better than goals (as Scott Adams says in his interesting How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). If you are trying to get your weight down to a certain point, every day that you are not at your target weight, you are a failure. This is not good. Better to try a different system (such as replacing your starch intake with extra vegetables) and just see what happens. Systems are sustainable. Goals are less so, because when you reach them, then what?

So, that’s how I lost 10kg without really trying. Will it work for you? I’ve no idea. But you can try it without risk, because all it requires you to do is eat lots of vegetables and cut out one type of food that you don’t really need: fast carbs.

You might also like this post: Eat Right for Fight Night

And let me reiterate: I'm not your doctor. I believe in trying things out sensibly, and building healthy habits. This worked for me; we have a lot of DNA in common, so it's probably at least worth trying for you. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that.

Incidentally, this post appears as part of the “Nutrition” section of my new book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts.

Medieval scribes had crap posture too! Image from: http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html

One of the challenges of my new lifestyle is that I don’t have class three or four times a week to keep me to a fitness regime. Before I could make the switch in my head from swordsman-writer to writer-swordsman, I had to figure out how I was going to prevent myself from becoming a weak and overweight lush who was always drunk by lunchtime. Because that’s what writers are like, no?

*Guy ducks and runs away from the many, many, uber-fit sword-swinging writers he knows*

Well, maybe not all writers, but I certainly have the capacity for it.

You may have read about my morning routines for beating jet-lag. I have developed and adapted those for preventing a condition that I will christen “writer’s blimp”. The trick, the key insight, is that this is about developing the sort of habits that will lead to my desired result, rather than coming up with a prescriptive regime. This routine has four steps:

1. Meditation

When I wake up in the morning, I usually go straight into an awareness-of-breathing or mindfulness meditation (guided or otherwise). This lasts from 5-20 minutes, depending on all sorts of things, not least the time. Ideally, I wake up naturally an hour or so before my kids do, which does actually happen about once a week. But one of the greatest privileges of my self-employed (and parental) status is that I almost never have to set a morning alarm. So I don’t set an alarm to be up in time to meditate before breakfast, because if I don’t have time to do it before the kids go to school, it’s #1 on my todo list after the house has quieted down.

2. Breathing

Then I usually do three rounds of Wim Hof breathing; if I’m too late to meditate before the kids come in, then I do this anyway. In the second round, while my lungs are empty, I get up and do some squats and push-ups. Then after breathing in, I do some gentle stretches, push-ups, that sort of thing, guided by how my body feels. Or I might do some of my classic breathing exercises. You know, like the ones in this book.

3. Engage with strength

I usually then do a couple of clean-and-presses on each arm with a 16kg kettlebell, some squats with a 16kg kettlebell cleaned in each hand, followed by a couple of double overhead presses with the 16kg bells, followed by some clean and presses with a 24kg kettlebell. Maybe some Turkish Get-Ups if I’m feeling energetic. This takes about 5 minutes, and engages just about every muscle in the body. If there’s time and I feel like it, I go for longer and do more.

4. Cold Shock

Shower next; for a long time I used to have a hot shower, then finish cold. Then I went to cold-hot-cold, again for several months, maybe a year or more; I didn't really track it. Now I treat hot water as a delicious luxury for when I really feel like it, and so usually shower on full cold only. It is very invigorating.

I put together a video of this routine for you.

5. Paying attention to food

I always sit down for breakfast with the kids, but I don’t usually eat anything. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some protein and fat (such as half a tin of sardines and a tomato); I try to avoid any starches or fast carbs first thing. (But oh! Peanut butter and banana on toast with brown sugar sprinkled on! Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup! Nutella with anything! I do miss them all, so they are weekend-only fare.) I almost always have a cup of coffee, and sometimes make it “bulletproof”: a chunk of organic butter, a dash of MCT oil, and whizz it with a hand-blender. It doesn’t taste very nice, if I’m honest (if you take milk in your coffee you’d probably like it more), but it does seem to delay the need to eat lunch, and it may help a bit with mental sharpness. I'm considering changing the pattern to eating in the morning, but last-calorie-in by 6pm, to give me the necessary metabolic cleansing time. Dr Rhonda Patrick suggests 14 hours as a useful minimum in this handy podcast. Dig into that if you want the details (and yes, she's a proper scientist). I have noticed that having an earlier eating window makes jet-lag recovery much faster.

When I settle down to work, it often means doing my 20 minutes or so of meditation, and sometimes some exercise (breathing exercises, kettlebells, that sort of thing) first. My feeling is that I need to maintain a solid baseline of fitness, strength, and agility, so that my body doesn’t deteriorate, and I can still do all the things I want to do (like beat the crap out of people with a sword practice swordsmanship to a high level).

Then I start writing. If I’m working on the first draft of a new book (as I am right now), then I hit my word count, and either keep going, or stop and do something else (edit a different book; do some marketing; write a blog post; empty my inbox). I don’t usually even open my inbox before hitting my word count. I also almost always have my phone on silent*, and check it when I’ve done what I need to do. This period of maximum productivity lasts for about one to four hours from about 08.30.

Ergonomics are really important; this is why I only usually work at home in my carefully set-up study.

[Update: losing this study was one of the worst things about leaving Finland; but I'm nicely ensconced in my new office at the Waterfront Studios, at the University of Suffolk. Kelly Starrett has an interesting take on the problems of sitting to much in his book Deskbound]

I’m done working by lunch, which is always very short on fast carbs of any kind, but long on vegetables. The kids get home from school between 12.30 and 2.30, depending on the day, and I try to avoid being buried in my laptop when they’re here. Of course, these days they often don’t want their old man messing up their very important games, so I might do some work or reading in the afternoons, but it’s not guaranteed.

By 6pm, right when I would have normally been starting a class, I’m free! To cook dinner for the kids, for example, have a glass of wine with my wife, for another example. The day usually ends with my wife and I watching something on TV before bed, and it’s usually sufficiently easy watching that I can get of the sofa and do twenty minutes or so of stretching while we watch it. Assuming I’ve been careful with starch and sugar all day, then I’ll usually eat whatever I want in the evening.  [I think I need to do a proper blog post on diet and weight control. Hmmm. Ok, done.]

So, in a day when I don’t set aside any real time for training, I’ve meditated, done some breathing exercises, done probably 20-50 push-ups, 10-20 pull-ups (there's a pull-up bar in my office; every time I go get a cup of tea, go to the loo, or am procrastinating, I'll do a couple), 5 minutes of kettlebells, and 20-30 minutes of stretching, and watched what I ate. Any part of this can be expanded without having to create a new habit. In other words, if I feel that my flexibility is suffering, I can extend my evening stretches, and add more range of motion stuff in the morning, without having to suddenly find time to stretch. The time is already assigned. If  I think I’m getting weaker, I can add a minute or two to the kettlebell part. For example, I went to the physiotherapist yesterday because my always-dodgy spine started acting up; I've now got some totally specific corrective exercises to do regularly throughout the day… no problem; they are slotted in in place of the pull-ups. If you are interested in the specific exercises I use to keep my arms from going into tendonitis spasm, see my free course on arm maintenance, and my free course on looking after your legs.

I am blessed with a metabolism that puts on weight very easily if I don’t watch what  I eat, a spine that produces agonising spasms if I don’t exercise it regularly, and pathetic little wrists that will swell up with tendonitis if I neglect my forearm maintenance for even a few days. This means that I am obliged to keep reasonably fit, or it all goes to hell very fast. It also means that I have had to learn how to do so, or I break. In this case, inherent weakness really has been a virtue.

So, that’s what I’m doing to remain a martial artist while becoming a full-time writer. What do you do?

*Here is a list of the things I might be doing that a phone-call might interrupt. In no particular order: writing something you might want to read one day if I ever get round to finishing it what with all these interruptions; editing video; training; breathing exercises; meditating; eating; playing with my kids; sleeping; bathroom stuff; thinking; writing up my notes; lying on the sofa doing nothing; watching a movie; sharpening a pencil; doing woodwork; cooking; talking to my wife; planning stuff; and that's me just getting started on this list. So, really, why would I want to answer the phone? The chances of it being either really time-critical, or something I really want to hear, are pretty small. Most of my phone calls are scheduled in advance by email, so I know not to be doing something else when the phone rings. Wife, kids, parents, siblings and very close friends get a pass. Everyone else? make an appointment 🙂

Halloo!

 

I am 42 years old today. As everybody knows, the Meaning of Life is forty two, so a post on the Meaning of Life seems apt.

What then have I learned in 42 solar sojourns? (Other than to insert Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Blackadder references wherever possible?)

Pay close attention, because this is important. If there is ONE BIG THING I have learned, it’s this:

Love is not the main thing. Love is not the best thing. Love is not the most important thing.

Love is the ONLY thing that matters.

That’s it.

Love your spouse, children, family.

Love your friends. They’re the family you choose.

Work for love. Not necessarily do work that you love. That’s great if you can get it. But work for love. Work to get money to feed your kids. Work to get money to feed other people’s kids. Work because the work itself is worthwhile whether you enjoy it or not.

But do it for love.

Love yourself. The best way to do that is to show love to the people you care about. That will feed your soul like nothing else. But also look after your body and your mind. You deserve it.

It's probably better to do the wrong thing, from love, than the right thing from any other motive.

And tell me these pics made by my kids don't make you go ahhhhhh:

By Katriina By Grace

I am writing a short book at the moment with the working title “How to Live Long and Prosper”. (Star Trek references are good too.)

It will cover my best advice on how to live. It has five basic practices:

  1. Spend time with people you care about. (Love.)
  2. Do things you find meaningful. (Do them for love.)
  3. Think right. (Love your mind.)
  4. Eat right (love your body, part 1)
  5. Exercise (love your body, part 2)

And then a whole lot of ideas, principles, and practices to make those five easier. My go-to strength training exercises; my favourite meditations; that sort of thing. This will be backed up by the research I’ve done over the last couple of decades, much of it distilled from the works of better scholars than I. Studies of centagenarians, for instance.

I’ll also look at money, how to manage it, and what it is actually for. This has been a critical skill for creating a decent quality of life from a swordsman’s income. Because once you clear away the inessentials (anything that is not about love), then it becomes much easier to make good long-term financial decisions, which will indeed help you to prosper.

I will spend today with my wife and kids, also meditating and exercising, and eating good food, and in the evening I'll go to the salle and teach and advanced class. Following my own advice, in other words. Talk about a happy birthday!

And in case your day needed cheering up:

My next book, Swordfighting, is, from a creative perspective, done. It is still being edited, tweaked into better forms, and has yet to be published, but the creative work, by which I mean “writing new material”, is over. I have a bunch of started book projects on my computer, and  I am wondering which of them most takes your fancy; which one would you most like to see finished first. I posted a poll yesterday, and the top three contenders are:

1) Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training. The sequel to my latest longsword book, which would cover advanced training, techniques, and concepts. (40% of the votes)

2) A new rapier book, to replace The Duellist's Companion. This will take into account about 9 years of teaching rapier regularly, and so be much easier to follow and use. (22% of the votes)

3) How to Train which has sections on strength training, nutrition, range of motion, meditation, and breathing. In other words how to craft your body to be able to do what you want it to do. The emphasis will be on being able to swing swords, but the principles are sufficiently general that it can apply to any area of life. (31% of the votes)

Or is there something else? I'm open to suggestions, which so far have included: a beginner's Bolognese book, Sword & Buckler, combined martial arts and swordsmanship (whatever that is!), and my interpretation of all of Fiore's plays on foot, among others.

So, if you have an opinion, please let me know it by answering my poll. I added 3000 words to my draft of Advanced Longsword today, inspired by yesterday's responses…

I am sometimes asked to cover a specific topic on this blog. In this case, Lisa Jenkins, from the Minnesota Sword Club sent me this question:

I was wondering if you would share a blog post on practical things like sports nutrition for hema, and ways to keep cool and hydrated while exercising underneath a lot of protective gear (our club has no air conditioning.)  I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about these aspects of training.  I read in your Swordsman’s Companion book that you run a school that treats students holistically—I’d be very interested in getting an idea of what you include in your system.

Nutrition is a huge and knotty subject, so let’s deal with hydration and keeping cool first.

If you are training in hot conditions, drink plenty of water; my key indicator for this is bathroom breaks. There’s a saying I learned living in the tropics; if you don’t need to pee, you’re dehydrated. If drinking water doesn’t help, and especially if you are feeling dizzy but have been keeping your fluids up, then check your salt intake. I do this by mixing a teaspoon of table salt with just enough water to dissolve most of it, and taste it. If it tastes horrible, you shouldn’t drink it; if it tastes wonderful, you’re probably salt depleted and should drink it down, followed by a glass of water.

Given that it is only hot in Finland for about ten minutes per year (well, this summer about two months), we could schedule most full-kit training to more temperate times of year. (We don't.) But in case that’s not an option, then overheating in kit, like anything else, can be trained for. Gradually and systematically build up your tolerance for overheating, the way you would gradually and systematically build up your push-ups.

Above all, know when to stop. A few years ago I held the field at WMAW, against all comers with any weapon, in a swelteringly hot gym. It was great fun, but after an hour or so, while I was hot and getting tired, I shivered. A full-body shudder, like I was soaking wet on a freezing Scottish hillside in winter. So I had just one more bout, and stopped. (As a responsible instructor, I should have stopped immediately. But there was a queue of people waiting to fight me, and I couldn’t bear to let them all down.)

Now for nutrition. Here are some key ideas.

Food is personal

Food is one of those topics that entire lifestyles can revolve around. It is a critical part of every culture; there are no culturally-neutral cuisines. Foods also tend to have deeply personal associations. My grandma’s cherry pie is, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, way better than yours. Roast turkey with all the trimmings, but at Easter not Christmas? That would be weird, right? My brother-in-law is Jewish, and my sister-in-law is Muslim, so neither are likely to be found scoffing bacon, and so on.

Just because a food is culturally mandated, or culturally taboo, does not necessarily make kit healthy or unhealthy. But it does make it very hard to objectively assess whether a specific food belongs in your diet or not. Keep this in mind; your belief in the health-giving properties of apple pie may be unfounded in medical fact.

Food is a drug

The human body is a fantastically complicated machine, and the precise effect of any given thing on it is hard to predict. I think we can all agree that decapitation is unhealthy, and breathing air is healthy, but between those two extremes, there is a massive amount of variation. For example, I once ate a lovely healthy salad with chicken at a hotel in Edinburgh, while sat across from someone who would have been dead in 24 hours had she eaten the same. She was in the last stages of kidney failure, and the protein would have been utterly toxic to her. She died a couple of months later, having extended her life by several years by severely restricting her protein intake. So while it is important to have a good idea of what any given food tends to do to most human bodies, it is vital to know precisely what it does to your specific body. And just like with other drugs, a large part of food’s effect is placebo or nocebo. Honestly believing that cyanide is good for you does not make it so; but in the normal range of foods, how you feel about what you eat has an effect on what it will do to you.

Alcohol is a good example of this; there are measurable, non-imaginary chemical effects of alcohol ingestion; but the behavioral changes brought on by intoxication are entirely cultural. It makes you gregarious, or badly behaved, or whatever else it does, because you are conditioned to think it will by the culture you live in. Read Kate Fox on the subject here.

[Disclaimer; I am trying out Amazon affiliate links. So every one of these links below is one. I give you my word that I will only ever link to a book that 1) I own 2) I am glad I own 3) I think is truly relevant to the topic at hand. If I need to refer to a book that does not meet those criteria, I will note the title and author, but not link to it.]

The problem with doctors

Doctors, like soldiers, tend to be very conservative. If something appears to work, don’t change it. Don’t experiment. Because when the consequences of a failed experiment is people die, conservatism and caution are not just advisable, they are a moral imperative. Non nocere (do no harm) is the essence of the Hippocratic Oath. But this conservatism can also work in reverse; it took Dr Alice Stewart decades to convince the medical establishment that it is dangerous to x-ray pregnant women; thousands of children were killed by cancers caused by in-utero irradiation after she had proved that it was happening. (See Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, pp 60-67). So, just because a doctor says it’s so, does not necessarily mean it is. Doctors are highly trained experts, with a professional aversion to change, and they are all, every last one of them, human. It is foolish to think that doctors are infallible health gods.

So, the problem with doctors is often the patient. Doctors are not responsible for your health; you are. Doctors are professionals you hire to fix problems that are outside your competence. The person who services your car probably does not fill it up with fuel every time it runs low; you do. You don’t call a plumber to flush the toilet (I hope). The point at which your competence ends and you need to call in an expert varies hugely from person to person, and domain to domain. I don’t need a mechanic to check my oil level, but I never touch my car with a tool. I can change a washer in a tap, but I would not install a boiler. I don’t need a doctor to diagnose a cold, or to mop my fevered brow (that’s my wife’s job, poor woman), but if I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I call in a professional.

So a doctor’s advice on what you should eat will tend to stick with what usually works ok for most people, and be extremely moderate. It is very unlikely to hurt you, but it may not boost your performance at all.

Be a soldier or an athlete

World-class athletes tend to have their diet planned down to the last grain of rice (if their diet allows rice), and scheduled extremely precisely to ensure maximum performance at a single thing (running 100m OR a marathon; boxing OR wrestling) on a specific, known, future date. When the difference between Olympic gold and obscurity are measured in fractions of a percent in difference in performance, this only makes sense.

Soldiers on the other hand cannot tell in advance when they will be under fire, when they will be humping 25kg packs over desert hills or sprinting for cover through jungle, when they may be resupplied or when they will be living off the rations in their belt pouches for a week or even longer. So while general good nutrition is essential, and while a good quartermaster will win more battles than a good general, soldiers tend to eat what they can get, when they can get it. The key skill there is tolerance for variation.

In my view, martial artists (as opposed to combat sportsmen) should follow a healthy diet, yes, but never get precious about what and when they eat. “I didn’t get my organic bacon for breakfast”, or “I timed my protein intake wrong” are not valid excuses for losing a fight.

A good story is not always true.

“Fat makes you fat.” Makes sense, but there is bugger-all evidence for it. Plenty of people on a high fat diet are skinny- if they also avoid sugar. Likewise “Energy in, energy out.” Yes, the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. But the variables of what your body does with the energy that comes in as food are huge. A friend of mine worked in a lab where they put mice on a low-calorie diet, but also injected the hormone leptin into their brains. The results, in my friend’s immortal phrase: furry tennis balls. Food is a drug; some foods trigger fat deposition, other foods can trigger fat burning; the body is complex. See Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

“We evolved in an environment in which certain foods were available; reproducing that (eg the Paleo diet) must be healthier, because it’s the diet we evolved to survive on”. Well, yes and no. I tend to agree that eating like a cave-man is probably closest to the diet we evolved to survive on, but: 1) we don’t know exactly what cave-men ate, nor how often. 2) Cave-men did not all eat the same things. Compare for example the known diets of pre-agricultural Native American tribes. Pre-industrial societies invariably eat what they can get. 3) We cannot reproduce all aspects of the cave-man diet, not least because the ranges of produce are huge, and locally specific. 4) We cannot know what else they did that may have improved their lifespan. For instance, for sure they didn’t sit on chairs, nor sleep in beds. But they also had a horrifically high rate of infant mortality, death by violence (pre-industrial tribes that survived into the modern era had rates of death by violence of about 25% of males. Today, on the mean streets of New York, it’s about 1 in 100,000, or 0.001%: see Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature). 5) Paleolithic life expectancy is generally thought to be pretty damn low. Was all of that environmental, or may some of it have come from their diet? We don’t know. 6) We do know that early agricultural societies appear to have much higher rates of disease and lower life expectancies than comparable pre-agricultural societies. Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and many cancers do appear to be diseases of modernity. But how much of that is down to diet as opposed to (for example) exercise? Nobody knows for sure. 7) Many modern inventions (like antibiotics and surgery) save lives. It is also possible that modern foodstuffs could, in theory, do the same (yes, I doubt it too. But you never know).

So, don’t be taken in by a story. Test any dietary changes systematically, give each change time to take effect (at least a couple of weeks, I would think) and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Take nothing on faith (especially not a random blog post by some sword-swinging lunatic).

The 80-20 principle

In all things where you don’t want to invest major effort in becoming a world expert, the 80-20 principle (also known as the Pareto principle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle) applies. It states that 80 percent of outcomes come from 20 percent of causes, and so long as you don’t take the numbers too literally, it is largely true. I do not agree with any diet that requires really specific foods at really specific intervals, unless you are seriously ill and under doctor’s orders, or an Olympic hopeful. If you’d like to see self-experimentation taken into 99.999-0.001 extremes (with a lot of good material on a range of health and training subjects), see Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body. The man even had himself fitted with a real-time blood-sugar monitor to test the effect of various foods. Fascinating stuff.

So here are some general guidelines, which if you follow them, will probably lead you to a healthy diet (and thus make you healthier, and therefore able to train more, and therefore a better swordsman).

1) Change one thing at a time. The first step, I would suggest, is avoid refined sugar. Nobody has ever demonstrated that it is at all good for you, so save it for treats. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself, and pay attention to what effect each change has on you.

2) Eat lots of vegetables. If it is not obviously part of a plant, it doesn’t count (unless you process it yourself). Major starch sources don't count either (potatoes, corn, grains etc.) Fresh and in season is best, frozen or canned are ok too. Michael Pollan is good on this: Omnivore's Dilemma, and others.

3) Eat high-quality meat only. Avoid processed stuff. This is not only a matter of health, but also of morality. What people do to cows to make them fat is way beyond disgusting. Cows should eat grass outside. (Be a vegetarian if you must, but veganism is, for the overwhelming majority of people, a deeply unhealthy long-term life choice.) See The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, for details.

4) Only consume things that have been produced the same way and product tested for a minimum of 500 years. Coffee, beer, tea, wine, meat, vegetables, bread (made properly, none of this absurd 20-minute rising nonsense), all good. Factory-produced stuff? Might be good, might be bad, you have no way to know. So be conservative. Food should come from a garden via a kitchen, not from a factory. See The Omnivore’s Dilemma (again), and Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson.

5) Cook. Take an interest in, and control over, what you eat. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take much time, especially if you are preparing food from good quality ingredients. By far the best book for people who might think “I have no idea about cooking, it’s intimidating and difficult” I have ever come across is Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Chef.

6) Give each change time to take effect, before you assess its effectiveness.

Indicators of a good diet

When making changes to your diet, the key indicator is of course how you feel. But it is well worth keeping track of the following, to see what effect each change is having.

  • Weight. Since dropping most sugar, and a lot of the starch from my diet, I lost 10kg in about 3 weeks). I now weigh 75kg, which is a kilo heavier than when I was super-fit and trying really hard to keep weight on, at age 30. Weigh yourself at the same time of day, and on the same scales, once a week.
  • Waist size. Weight gain and loss can come from anywhere, and a lot of it may be simply water. As a general guideline, if your waist is smaller than your hips, you’ll fit into your kit better. But I find buying trousers is hell. If they can be pulled up over my thighs, I could fit a couple of hardbacks in the waistband.
  • Poo consistency: as every parent knows, poo is a great indicator of general health. Parents, especially of babies, can discuss poo at length. Anything that makes pooing harder, or painful, or especially stinky, is probably bad for you. There is no better indication of good diet, really.
  • Energy levels. These are very subjective, and can be affected by many factors other than diet. But if you find you need to snack to get through the day, you are probably eating sub-optimally. I found cutting sugar evened out my crashes very effectively.
  • Frequency of minor illnesses: again, this is actually quite hard to track. But if a diet leaves you feeling tired, or it feels like you are more prone to picking up stray bugs, then abandon it. And vice-versa, of course.

In short, when it comes to nutrition, you should to pay attention to your body, read up on some sciencey books so you know what’s going on inside you, and use some good common sense. Fresh vegetables? Good for you. Ice-cream? Not a staple food. A martial artist must take care of their body; just as a soldier takes care of their rifle, or a swordsman takes care of their sword.

As always, share if you dare!

Incidentally, this post appears as part of the “Nutrition” section of my new book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts. You can get a free 70 page sample of the book by signing up to my mailing list below.

One of the great advantages of being a professional swordsman in the 21st century is that nobody can reasonably expect you to be normal. As you might imagine, I engage in all sorts of odd behaviour, in the name of good physical and mental health, above and beyond simply swinging swords around in a historical and martial manner. Of course I do meditation and breathing exercises, nothing unusual there. And all sorts of physical jerks, push-ups and whatnot. That’s not odd, really: million of people do those. But these three habits are the ones that our current culture is most skewed against, and so by that standard count as weird.

My top three bizarro practices, from a 21st century perspective, are:

1) Avoid sugar.

Reading up on the effects of refined sugar has lead me to believe that after smoking, our addiction to the sugar high is probably the worst thing we do to ourselves. Why is it that we can control and tax alcohol and tobacco as legal luxury drugs, and not do the same to sugar?* Since cutting the sugar high out of my daily routine and relegating it to occasional treat status, I have tightened my belt by two notches, and most importantly, have stopped crashing in the afternoons. It used to be such that when teaching all day, I would have to dose up on sugar in mid-afternoon to function. Now that does not happen; nor do I need a sugar fix to teach in the evenings. We just got through the week-long Fiore Extravaganza, the most exhausting seminar of the year, and I went from start to finish without ever getting seriously physically tired. That’s absence of sugar for you. It was my one most serious cause of chronic fatigue. And it’s in everything! Read the labels on your food; maltodextrin is one of the very few chemicals with a higher glycaemic index than glucose; high fructose corn syrup does not belong in the human body at all; sucrose, dextrose anything with -ose on the end, it’s all poisonous shit.

And starch is sugar too, sort of.

About 5 years ago I found out that I am allergic to wheat, which lead me to naturally cut out a lot of starch; (until I found all these excellent wheat free breads, beers, pastas etc.). It is very hard to eliminate wheat from the modern diet; our entire economy has been based on wheat for three thousand years or so (much like the USA’s is based on corn). Simply cutting wheat did wonders for me, if not for the ease with which I can find food I can eat. Cutting out all other starch sources (pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) has also been hugely helpful; I don’t avoid them the way I have to with wheat, I just don’t eat them that often; about once a week or so. Starch breaks down very quickly into glucose, and thus behaves much like ordinary sugar. I eat enormous amounts of proper vegetables instead, usually fried in olive oil and garlic, often with bacon…

Recommended reading: Gary Taubes; also Tim Ferriss on the Slow Carb Diet.

2) Squat.

Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.
Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.

Really it’s astonishing when you think about it; about half of all my beginners cannot squat on their haunches. In other words, can’t take a dump properly. For millennia, mankind have crapped in the woods and fields, and squatted down to do it. Now we enthrone ourselves in porcelain splendour, and grunt and strain to do what should be easy.

Squatting should be a natural rest position. The human body is built to stand, lie down, and squat. I often squat down to play with my kids, read a book, wait for a bus, whatever. Any time my legs or back are tired, I squat. People look at me funny. I don’t care. Chairs are a recent, very welcome and excellent in their place, invention; but healthy they ain’t. Inability to squat is a modern phenomenon, with hard-to-measure consequences. But I always find a bin or a block to prop my feet up on when having a crap; it puts my legs in a much more natural position. One of the advantages of having little kids is that  there are standing blocks in our bathroom anyway, so the kids can reach the tap; these do double duty as footstools in the bog.

Recommended reading: an amusing article in Slate magazine

On a related note, I have played around with flat-soled shoes for years; heeled shoes are needed for riding with open stirrups and not otherwise. Though they can be gorgeous, modern heeled shoes are simply bad for most peoples' back, legs and feet. Barefoot is better. And on a recent trip to Verona to see my friends fight in the Tourneo del Cigno Bianco, I tried out my medieval shoes in the medieval town, and found them to be a perfect compromise between the ghastly modern barefoot shoes, and decent leather ones. With thin flexible leather soles, they are now my normal footwear in all non-freezing weather. I have yet to find a good flat-soled winter boot, and this being Finland, WINTER IS COMING. Any advice?

3) Unplug.

Outside. You can't beat it.
Outside. You can't beat it.

When I was working as a cabinet maker, and more so now as a hobbyist, I use machines to do the grunt work, and hand tools for the interesting and enjoyable stuff. Machines get the job done; tools make the work a pleasure. For some people, using an electric drill is a step too far towards mechanisation (see Tom Fidgen, for example); for others, they love the roar as the planer starts up. I am making the distinction not on the grounds of the machine itself, but on the user’s relationship with it. Machines to save labour, tools to enhance it. Can you imagine a woodworker who allowed remote access to his table saw? To allow his customers, or friends even, to determine when it’s on and when it’s ok to turn it off? No, me neither. So why do we feel that our friends, co-workers, or clients should have any say in when our own personal pocket phones are to be on or off? Or how often we should check our emails? It’s madness! When I feel like my phone is a tool, a pleasure to use and a thing that is making it easier for me to achieve my ends, I have it on. Otherwise, I turn it off. I check my email when I feel like it; every hour or so when I am eagerly awaiting a message from an old friend about something I care about; every day or so just to check in on whatever things other people might want from me. But sometimes not for a few days, or even a week. And you know what? As nobody’s life depends on my work, nobody has yet died for want of an email from me. Your situation may be different, but ask yourself this: what's the worst that could happen?

There are some people for whom I am always on call. My wife, my kids, my siblings and parents, and maybe five or six close friends. They can demand my immediate attention at any hour, though with the exception of my kids they wield this power with commendable restraint. The rest of the world, even those lovely people who buy my books, come to my classes, those on whom my livelihood depends, of which group I assume you, as a reader of my blog, are likely a member? Nope. Sorry. There is nothing truly urgent in the world of swordsmanship. By all means contact me, I'm happy to hear from you. Just don't expect me to reply immediately.

Recommended reading: none. Go outside and play instead. Or pick up a real book.

So, there are my top three. Bear in mind though, that these are habits, not laws. I don't expect hosts at a dinner party to cut sugar for me; I do sometimes wear my utterly fab and lovely heeled shoes; my favourite armchair has an imprint of my arse deeply worn into it. And I have been known to check email when I should not. Part of my approach to life is the idea that habits have deeper consequences than one-off or rare occurrences; in swordsmanship training, in health matters, and in general. One cigarette won't kill you, but smoking probably will. I never follow any training routine religiously. For some people, whatever behavioural changes they try need to be thought of as laws, or they find they slip back into bad habits too easily. Do what works for you, and let healthy habits be their own reward. I don't know who's reading this, but I'm pretty sure you're a decent person who deserves to be healthy.

You can’t make a living by cutting sugar, squatting, and turning off your phone. You can just make your life much, much healthier. Which makes for a better living.

So, what are your top stay-sane-and-healthy tips?

*In Finland, sugar in candies is taxed as a luxury, but not in doughnuts, cookies etc. And taxed at the point of sale, not at the point where the food companies buy it. I'd like to see sugar-containing food of any kind sold separately, and all taxed like single malt or cigars. It would be too damned expensive for food manufacturers to get us hooked with the white stuff. We'd all be healthier for it. And the taxes would pay for the insulin, cardiac resuscitations, cancer wards and other medical expenses that our illnesses from our sugar fixation require. Let sugar be the new nicotine!

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